Central Asian Ornate Leather Boot (2013.01.138)
November’s Object of the Month is a single ornate 19th century leather boot from the Karakoram or Hindu Kush, at the western edge of the Himalayas. In terms of modern political boundaries it may have originated in northern India, or northeastern Pakistan, or eastern Afghanistan. While neighbors, they are not always neighbors on good terms, and border disputes continue to this day.
The boot itself is a marvel. It’s made out of leather, generally intact, and covered with detailed cutwork and embroidery. The design is all geometry and curlicues with no figural representation. Closer inspection reveals shreds of bright cotton in blue, green, and red behind the cutwork, which would have once made the boot look like wearable stained glass. The embroidery may have once been bright gold, although now it’s almost as brown as the leather, and the back part of the boot is folded over, covering the foot opening. When worn, however, that tall back piece would have come to about mid-calf. The boot is constructed of laminated sheets of leather; just two layers for most of the upper, but up to five or six on the sole for durability. Wide leather cord has been sewn into the sole for traction.
It took some doing to figure out the boot’s origin. It was found in a box in the archives with several objects from China, including five more shoes, so my initial thoughts ran to Asia. That upturned toe made me think Mongolia, perhaps, but I couldn’t find any good parallels. Next I considered, among others, Ottoman Anatolia, and the Scandinavian peninsula, wondering if the toe could have been part of a rudimentary ski binding. Then I came across the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and contacted the curator. The museum confirmed its geographic origin, and that a boot like this would have been worn by 19th century Afghan nobility, or even royalty. The Bata even has a boot in their collection that could almost be a twin of the NMH boot.
An anthropologist would want to interview the shoe’s owner, but in his absence we can only ask questions of the boot itself: an archaeologist’s approach. Make no mistake, this boot was meant to make a fashion statement. Earlier I compared it to stained glass, but you could also compare it to the feathers on a peacock, especially if you imagine the front panel flaring out on both sides instead of collapsed over the arch of the foot, as it is today. Whichever comparison you prefer, both describe something showy. Fashionable, indeed! Footwear like this would have taken both time and skill to create, and it was almost certainly costly to do so. The person (probably male) wearing this boot would have had both status and disposable income, and clothes would have helped broadcast his position. It isn't hard to believe this individual was part of the nobility.
How did this boot end up at NMH? Like last month’s Acoma Jar, we don’t know the donor. Of the five other shoes found in the same box, only two were a complete pair; the other three were all unmatched singles, like this one. While it is possible that the matches may yet turn up, I am more inclined to believe a single donor gave all of these shoes to NMH at the same time, and either kept the matches, or gave them to another institution. With five shoes from eastern Asia, and this boot from central Asia, there would have been quite a lot of travel involved. I would be very curious to know about the trip, wouldn’t you?
Sara Karz Reid
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